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Mountain Soaring High Above Clouds
Mountain Soaring High Above Clouds, circa 1769
Ike Taiga (Japanese, born 1723)
Ink and light color on paper, mounted as a hanging scroll
132.2 x 57.5 cm
Private Collection

The Nanga Movement

The mid-eighteenth century in Japan was a time of political and social stability and economic prosperity. The Tokugawa family of military rulers (shogun) was firmly ensconced in the new eastern capital of Edo as the de facto political power, while the emperor reigned as spiritual and cultural sovereign in the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto in western Japan. Regional schools were established to spread the Chinese studies that the central government espoused along with the Confucian-based political system. The study of fields such as Chinese literature, music, and medicine became specializations among the educated elite of the newly rich merchant class as well.

During this time there were many groups of artists active in Japan, but young painters like Taiga were influenced by the new motifs and techniques introduced from the continent by Chinese merchants and other immigrants to Japan. This new Chinese mode was that of the literati (called wenren in Chinese; bunjin in Japanese). In China, this group belonged to the scholar-bureaucrat class, who practiced poetry, calligraphy, and painting at leisure as an avocation for themselves and a small circle of like-minded friends. The Chinese art theorist Dong Qichang (1555–1636) called the works by literati "Southern school painting" (called Nanzhonghua in Chinese; Nanshūga in Japanese), in opposition to an academic style that he termed the Northern school. The Japanese subsequently referred to the literati style using the abbreviated term Nanga (Southern painting).

Plum Blossoms with a Poem by Yuri
Plum Blossoms with a Poem by Yuri, before 1764
Tokuyama Gyokuran (Japanese, born 1727)
Ink on paper, hanging scroll
45 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
Private collection

The principal sources of Chinese literati images that Taiga had access to in his early years were imported Chinese printed books that provided images and poetry from the classical Chinese repertoire. One of the distinguishing features of Taiga's landscapes that he adopted from Chinese literati models was the use of poetic inscriptions and specific four-character titles brushed onto the painting. The titles frequently allude to older Chinese paintings or lines of Chinese classical poetry, which would be recognized by the knowledgeable viewer and thus add a further layer of meaning and enjoyment.

In terms of format, Chinese literati landscapes were most often painted as tall hanging scrolls. The challenge was to fit all the elements into a visually unified composition within the restrictive confines of the narrow, vertical picture plane. Taiga’s success at working out such compositional challenges is evident in the works in this exhibition.

One important element in Taiga's landscapes is his facility in using precise linear and stippled brushstrokes to lend variety and movement, heightened by his dynamic use of color.

Taiga and Gyokuran translated these compositional modes to the Japanese horizontal formats of the screen and sliding doors as well. The wider picture plane literally and figuratively provided more breathing space for their brushwork. Their borrowings from Chinese and other sources were never slavish copies but rather acted as springboards from which to take off, transforming images and ideas to establish a Japanese vision of the Nanga style.

Discover more about literati culture, and view examples of literati painting and calligraphy from the Museum's collection in the exhibition Japanese Literati Culture in the Edo Period.